Every year around this time I become completely obsessed with the School Library Journal Battle of the Books competition. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a nearly month long contest that rounds up elite children’s/YA authors to judge head-to-head contests between a variety of books ranging from Middle Grade to Non-fiction to YA. The books are assigned to brackets, and one book from each bracket is eliminated, the other advancing to the next round and so forth until the final battle.
In the most recent contest, the judge expressed a fear of being wrong about a book. She was worried that after reading both books she’d pick the one that was less deserving or overlook something in the “losing” book that ends up being hailed as the greatest children’s book of all time. (A slight exaggeration, but you get my meaning.) In this age of Social Media where we are all so involved in the conversation, the fear of making that wrong choice is even greater.
Being a regular reviewer for a local Canadian Children’s Book Review periodical and having sat on a number of awards committees myself, picking the wrong book is a fear I can totally identify with. I’ve been in this industry for over 15 years, and been a buyer for 10. I like to think I have a pretty good eye and a solid instinct for good books, but the one lesson I’ve learned over the years is that books are incredibly subjective. Even knowing that, it’s hard not to doubt your opinion when that book that you eliminated or passed over is universally loved by just about everybody else on the planet. I read it. I carefully evaluated it, but I didn’t choose it or even necessarily like it. There’s no rule that says I have to like every critically acclaimed or buzzy book (often I don’t), but that doubt grows even bigger when said book wins not just one, but multiple awards, and makes all of the best books of the year lists, etc…You start to wonder- what didn’t I see in this book?
I have often been in the minority of disliking something that the rest of the members on my committee ranks highly, and vice-versa. I’ve often championed something that isn’t the recipient of the love such as Daniel Kraus’ Life and Death of Zebulon Finch which didn’t get nearly the attention I thought it deserved. When I first started developing collections 10 years ago, my boss kindly told me that being that I lack a crystal ball that tells me absolutely what reaction a book will garner, I can’t second guess myself. Best-seller or bust, there is never an absolutely right or absolutely wrong choice, and that is the beauty of not only books, but any art form.